Pixar and everything else - them's the breaks when it comes to judging computer-animated fare these days. Although Pixar has rightfully earned themselves the lead among studios, and by a significant margin, it's all too easy to then marginalize the performance of others.

DreamWorks has certainly raised their game beyond pure pop-culture recitation with the inventive and entertaining likes of Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda, and Monsters vs. Aliens (and Aardman or no, I'd even include the winning Flushed Away among their finer efforts). For every Open Season, Sony has given us a Monster House (okay, so that's just one-for-one at the moment). And every time that Fox bequeaths to unwilling audiences something like Space Chimps or Everyone's Hero, Blue Sky has nothing to do with it.

Fox/Blue Sky, however, is the precise pairing that gives us the visually engaging and moderately amusing outings like Robots, Horton Hears a Who!, and the Ice Age films, with the latest of which -- Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs -- falling right in line with that modest-yet-reliable tradition.


Yep, you read that right: dinosaurs in the ice age. If you've already subscribed to the notion of a talking woolly mammoth (Ray Romano) befriending a talking sloth (John Leguizamo) and a talking saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) across the span of two films, though, I suppose that asking us to buy the existence of an immense underground cavern warmed by volcanic activity - and yet covered with ice - that happens to be home to all types of dinosaur life isn't pushing their luck all that much further.

It's a caveat/development that's about as swiftly presented and ignored as the necessary wedge driven between the pals: Romano and mate Queen Latifah are due to have a baby mammoth, a notion which drives Leary's worn-down predator to more independent pursuits while Leguizamo's bumbling bachelor tries to hatch a family of his own out of found dinosaur eggs. However, Mama Dino's not happy, natch, and so off they all go after one another into that convenient not-quite-underground of jurassic creatures and jungle-like conditions with the aid of one screw-loose weasel (Simon Pegg).

Sure, Seann William Scott and Josh Peck chime in a bit as possum pals from IA2, and Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader somehow recorded less lines total than any given character has claws (always a shame), but what really matters is the return of that silent saber-toothed squirrel, Scrat. This time, he's torn between his beloved acorn and the flirtatious advances of Scratte, who too has her sights set on the nut (well, specifically the acorn -- at first anyway). Their asides lead to the most purely delightful animated slapstick sequences this side of yesteryear, or at least since the previous film, and the recurring use of Lou Rawls' You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine is only topped by the acorn's own lovelorn ballad later on (they tell me it's a Gilbert O'Sullivan number, and I'd believe them).

The rest of the movie is Pegg's to steal, and more often than not, his nutty Ahab-like survivalist makes the pop culture references pop when eyes might otherwise roll (sure, it's supposed to be like he's using a cell phone, but he's so delightfully bonkers that we don't hold it against him). Someone else drops in a "Flintstones" reference, it's shameless; he drops in Apocalypse Now-style or has to choose between cutting a red 'wire' and a blue one, it's grin fodder. Romano sticks with stuff that suits his sitcom style ("guys don't talk to other guys about guy problems - they just punch each other in the shoulder!"), Latifah contributes some generic girl-power sass, Leary's barely there and considerably less temperamental when he is ("I think I'm losing my edge" is right), and Leguizamo, ever-lisping though he may be, has nothing on the sheer physical marvel of how his sloth can hardly move without looking like he's bound to tip over.

There's something to be said for the look, though, and not just in terms of fur count. This is the first Ice Age film given a 3-D presentation, and as computer-generated cartoons in recent months have tried either too hard (Monsters vs. Aliens) or not hard enough (Up) to incorporate the technology into a more engaging movie-going experience, this ranks as one of the better balances yet of decent depth-of-field in simple scenes and enhanced action sequences when the fur (literally) gets flying and the dinos get fierce. Let's hope that some studios take note that there are other ways to make their work pop out other than to literally throw it at their audience.

All in all, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is an improvement over its massively forgettable predecessor: generally inoffensive (save perhaps for history buffs), a bit more charming than most of the non-Pixar competition, and frivolous in the best possible sense.